x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

UAE target a flying start to campaign in Sri Lanka

Win in inaugural Asian Five Nations match is vital, says chief executive.

The UAE rugby union team play their first game against Sri Lanka tomorrow. Satish Kumar / The National
The UAE rugby union team play their first game against Sri Lanka tomorrow. Satish Kumar / The National

The executive management of the Rugby Association are confident the team can justify their decision to remain in the top tier of Asian rugby by winning their inaugural game tomorrow.

When the UAE were formed after the Arabian Gulf was disbanded, the Rugby Association was given the option of assuming the place of the Arabian Gulf in the Top Five competition or starting from the bottom rung of the Asian rugby ladder in Division Five.

"We obviously choose to stay in the big league," Qais Abdulla Aldhalai, the deputy general secretary of the Rugby Association, said. "Our goal is now to remain there."

The UAE usher in the new era with a game against Sri Lanka in Colombo tomorrow.

"It is a new beginning for us and a new history," Aldhalai said. "For the first time, our players will be representing a country and I'm very confident we will do well.

"The players are carrying the flag of UAE on their chest for the first time. I'm confident they will do us proud."

Ian Bremner, the chief executive, is acutely aware of the importance of tomorrow's game, especially with games against Kazakhstan, last year's runner-up, Japan, the defending champions, and Hong Kong to come.

"We must return with something from Sri Lanka," Bremner said. "If we don't win our first game, we will be running up a slope for the remaining matches.

"Lose and we will have our backs a little bit to the wall. We are playing away to Hong Kong and while we have home advantage against Kazakhstan, we lost to them last year.

"Our best chance of staying in the Top Five next season will be to beat the new boys in the big league - Sri Lanka."

Sri Lanka, promoted after winning Division One last season, also admit that their best chance of registering a victory will be in their opening match.

"We realise the importance of this game," Ellis Meachen, their New Zealand-based coach, said. "Our aim this year is to make certain we are not relegated back into Division One next season."

Meachen, who was brought in to coach the side three months ago, says his biggest problem is the lack of match practice for the team with rugby being off-season in Sri Lanka right now.

Captained by Sean Wijesinghe, the Kandy flanker, Sri Lanka's goal will be made slightly easier by raising the curtain on the tournament at home in Colombo, and by the fact that they will host three matches this year as the final game against the Japanese has been moved from Tokyo to the Ceylonese Rugby & Football Club in Colombo because of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Bruce Birtwistle, the UAE coach, has benefited from being able to work with his player since January and he has needed that time to gel the squad as only five players have been retained from last year's Arabian Gulf XV which finished fourth in the competition with wins over Hong Kong and South Korea.

"We used to be able to draw players from Bahrain, Oman and Qatar in the past, but no more," Birtwistle said.

"We have also lost players who have left the region like Jonny MacDonald who has joined Scotland and played at the Hong Kong Sevens and Adelaide Sevens. His loss is huge.

"We have a reasonable forward pack but the backs are inexperienced. But if we play to our potential we will be a difficult team to handle."

For the future of the game in the country, the chief executive certainly hopes so.

"It is vital to stay in the Top Five for the sake of continuity and sustainability," Bremner said.

"We have to show our fans that the UAE can take over from the Arabian Gulf and be a team they can support."

The portents do not augur well for the UAE, who lost a warm-up game with Morocco, 13-0, in Casablanca.

"A few poor refereeing decisions went against us and it created some frustrations for the players," Birtwistle said.

"We also had five players who were playing international rugby for the first time."

* Compiled by The National staff with agencies